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Mexican pilgrimage | A documentary of the Huichol pilgrimage in Mexico | Golden Eagles and Sacred Sites in Mexico

Golden Eagles and Sacred Sites in Mexico

Since 1994 a small, non-profit organisation in Mexico called Conservación Humana has been helping the Huichol people conserve some of their sacred sites, and also find alternatives to their traditional use of Golden Eagle wings in their ceremonies

As well as being one of the best preserved native cultures in North America, the Huichol are a living example of how a sophisticated society can function while imposing a relatively low impact on their environment.

The project has included:

** Protecting the Land

In 1994 Conservación Humana helped the Huichol transform a portion of their 400 km traditional pilgrimage route into the “Natural Reserve of Huiricuta”, an area protected under local environmental legislation. Six years later this lead to the route being given the status of ‘Sacred Gift’, within the WWF-International list of sacred gifts for the new millennium - with the Reserve enlarged and more of the route incorporated into the protected area. In 2000 the legally protected area was nearly doubled, from 74,000 to 140,000 hectares, covering around 40% of the total route.

Protecting the Eagles

For centuries, Golden Eagle feathers - called muvieri by the Huichol - have been vital for use in rituals. Today, however, the species is endangered in Mexico. Conservación Humana has negotiated an agreement with zoos who keep Golden Eagles captive for breeding purposes, that they will provide the Huichol shamans with spare feathers, obviating the need to hunt the birds before a ceremony. By protecting the environment and at the same time helping the maracate shamans have access to feathers, everybody wins.

Mapping the Land

In the mid 1990s CHAC began an exercise to map and record the ancient pilgrimage route. This was often a matter of some delicacy. In some cases, the existence and location of a sacred site was secret information, known only to the Huichol elders. Some of these sites are still secret, others were revealed to CHAC for their own information, but not for public disclosure. The published maps contain only those sites that were already known beyond the community, or that the elders felt should be legally protected.

The mapping began with simple sketches drawn in the ground by the Huichol elders. Conservación Humana then used these - together with historical and contemporary maps, aerial and ground photographs, expedition data and anthropological/ecological archives – to create new maps and databases, within the Geographical Information System (GIS) tradition. As Conservación Humana’s director Humberto Fernandes said: “It is a constant, on-going process, so there is no “final version”.”

The group was assisted by the Hopi Tribe Land Information Office (Arizona, USA) and the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). However now CHAC is looking for funding to create an in-house GIS laboratory with the aim of training Huichols to manage the process.

Promotion of economic development

The Huiricuta Reserve and adjacent lands are only visited by Huichols at certain times of year, for ritual purposes. The people who live there are largely non indigenous – manly poor people who live mainly from intensive subsistence farming, cattle farming as well as illegal trafficking of rare local flora and fauna. There is a vicious cycle of poverty and degradation of the environment in the region.

Conservación Humana is setting up a Museum, or “Centre of Interpretation” in the local town of Real de Catorce. It will offer courses and workshops including

• better use of water,
• handling of waste products,
• how to engage in ecotourism.
• Organic farming methods.

One of the first projects involved promoting semi-hydroponic nurseries as an economic alternative for the impoverished workers on several ‘ejidos’, or communally owned landholdings, in Huiricuta, a semi-desert region where water is scarce and precious.

Videos and Books

In 2006, assisted by ARC, Conservación Humana produced a 10 minute video, narrated by the well-known actress Angelica Aragón emphasising the concept of cultural routes and the value of walking trails – a concept of engaging with the countryside which is popular throughout Europe but largely ignored by Mexican society. The aim is to show that “Cultural Routes” are a component of our heritage, and that they need recognition and protection just as historical buildings or ecological reserves do. The video will soon be available in English.

It follows from a 2001 video made with the support of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, showing two Huichol elders narrating the cultural significance of some of the 1,400 ritual objects collected by German anthropologist Konrad T. Preuss in 1905 and 1906. Since the collection has been in Europe for a century, it was believed that film would be a way of conveying information about these objects to the Huichol people today.

In co-edition with the Ministry of Social Development, Conservación Humana has also published an illustrated book - the story of a pilgrim who tells his own experiences of making a pilgrimage to Huiricuta.

Plans for the Future

** In 2004, Conservación Humana promoted the idea of including the Huichol route in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention list. This possibility is still being actively pursued

** Since June 2006, Conservación Humana has been working with the state government of Zacatecas and the federal Ministry of Environment in order to protect the entire pilgrimage route, from the Huichol homeland in the Sierra Madre to Huiricuta in San Luis Potosí.

** A series of further environmental studies, like the ones made in San Luis Potosí, are being prepared to assess exactly which new areas must be considered for conservation. If this were successful, it would mean that almost 90% of the pilgrimage route would be covered, leaving only 10% for future negotiations.

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Related information

October 20 2006:
New bid to protect full 400km Mexican pilgrim route
The Huichol Indians have started talks with the Mexican government to protect the length of their 400K pilgrimage route, including forests and wetlands: places where shamans have performed ceremonies for centuries.
Huichol people protect ancient pilgrimage route
The most sacred site for the Huichol in Mexico includes key parts of the Chihuahuan Desert. They regard it as a huge natural temple. ARC has worked with the Huichol and local NGO CHAC to help protect it.
Vision and Strategy
ARC's vision is of people, through their beliefs, treading more gently upon the earth. Link here to find out how we achieve this.